Moe, P. W. (2012). Revealing rather than concealing disability: The rhetoric of Parkinson’s advocate Michael J. Fox. Rhetoric Review, 31(4), 443-460.


This article by Peter Wayne Moe examines the Parkinson’s research advocacy rhetoric of Michael J. Fox through Prelli’s theory of the rhetoric of display–particularly the notion that language may conceal as it reveals and that rhetorics may reveal but they also may conceal–in order to show that the rhetorical display of the disabled or revealed body challenges traditional notions of rhetoric and affirms the visual body as a powerful tool in the rhetor’s arsenal. Moe relies on Lawrence J. Prelli’s introduction to the collection The Rhetorics of Display (2006)to serve as the theoretical foundation of his argument that the physicality of the rhetor can be powerful as the text or speech of the rhetor. Prelli claims that language mediates what we see, thus language, rhetoric, and the visual are connected (445). The disabled rhetor, claims Moe, is pressured to conceal the disability through views, expressed in the Classical period by Quintilian and Cicero, that the ethos and efficacy of the rhetor is tied to the rhetor’s physicality, thus the rhetor should be healthy, strong, and capable of steady speech.

Moe’s object of study is Michael J. Fox’s 1999 testimony before the Senate subcommittee for the purpose of urging the Senate to increase funding for research into Parkinson’s Disease. Fox made the rhetorical decision to go before the Senate unmedicated so that the full spectrum of his symptoms were on display. Conservative political commentator and radio host Rush Limbaugh was Fox’s most visible critic, claiming that Fox was exaggerating his symptoms and attempting to manipulate the audience.

Moe contrasts Fox’s advocacy rhetoric which reveals his disability to past examples of rhetors (Roosevelt, King George, and Thomas Eagleton) who attempted to conceal their disabilities in order to shape their rhetorical ethoi. Moe compares Fox’s revelation to metaphorical coming out of the closet of LGBT persons (447). The content of Fox’s speech, according to Moe, was a simple three-part argument explaining the prevalence of the disease and that there is no treatment other than symptom management, a complaint at the lack of funding for Parkinson’s research, and requesting that the Senate provide funding. The speech was powerful, according to Moe, because the delivery, with the lack of motor control, jerky movement, and shaking accompanied by a reasoned argument and steady voice (which some Parkinson’s patients do not have). Fox used metaphors of war, calling himself a soldier and referring his advocacy of Parkinson’s research as a fight against the disease. Moe claims that Fox challenged traditional notions of who can be a speaker by rejecting the audience’s preconceived notions about speakers while also anticipating that his delivery would be an emotional affront, which risks reinscribing such responses as normal. Fox undermines the way in which disability has been associated with deceit and femininity by showing that the deceit in this case is the medicated body and he revealed his true bodily state by not using medication. By using war imagery and exhibiting mental acuity, he challenged the view that disability because disability is embodied.

Moe concludes by arguing that in revealing his disability, he has strengthened is rhetorical efficacy and he has shown that that the disabled or revealed body is a site of rhetoric and that there is a strong relationship between rhetoric, language, and the body.

I chose this article because I plan to use Lawrence Prelli’s Rhetorics of Display as a theoretical grounding for my research project focusing on whether the use of visual activism in pro-breastfeeding campaigns undermines attempts to normalize breastfeeding as Brett Lunceford contends. Moe’s exploration of Michael J Fox’s bodily rhetoric is an example of the use of Prelli’s theory in the examination of a rhetorical performance. It challenges the position that Lunceford takes that revealing bodily activity that is normally concealed from view makes that activity a spectacle and therefore undermines the notion that the activity is normal. For those working in the field of visual rhetoric, the article provides an example of an essay focused on rhetorical delivery, an underexplored area of current rhetorical scholarship.



Works Cited

Moe, P. W. (2012). Revealing rather than concealing disability: The rhetoric of Parkinson’s advocate Michael J. Fox. Rhetoric Review, 31(4), 443-460.

Prelli, L. J. (Ed.). (2006). Rhetorics of display. Univ of South Carolina Press.


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